Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Ox


I was drawn to Ben Proudfoot’s 10 minute documentary short on account of my father. Dad worked as a truck driver, an owner-operator, and undertook all the servicing and repair work himself. An intuitive mechanic, he could listen to a truck engine and know just by the sound of it if some component was running out of true. He could strip an engine down and rebuild it and not cast a glance at an owner’s manual. He’d build his own tools if necessary to get the job done.

But his real passion was woodwork. Give him a lathe, a plane, a stand-drill, a jigsaw and he morphed from artisan to artist. Eric Hollenbeck, founder of Blue Ox carpenters and the subject of Proudfoot’s film, put me in mind of my dad. True, my dad never went to Vietnam like Hollenbeck did (he was a veteran at 19), and Hollenbeck’s workshop is way bigger than dad’s, but nonetheless I experienced an immediate point of identification with the film, and something in the way that Proudfoot’s camera lingers on motes of dust swirling through a beam of sunlight that took me back to my childhood.

Hollenbeck is a documentarist’s dream subject: eloquent, thoughtful, knowledgeable; an interviewee who’s prepared to be open and honest without any prodding. Hollenbeck discusses his Vietnam experience with the quiet gravitas of someone who has been through hell and come, in his own time, to his own understanding of it. “It’s like there’s two Erics,” he explains: “the sixty-five year old, and the scared eighteen year old kid.” Describing the difficulty of reconciling the two, he uses the metaphor of bending a coiled spring out of shape: “you can try and bend it back but it never realigns”.

Shaping words as easily as he does wood, Hollenbeck employs another metaphor when discoursing on the modern age: a train going at full speed, collecting information as if shovelled up by the cowcatcher at the front of the loco, while the brakeman on the caboose is constantly throwing it out onto the tracks behind him just to make room for the next lot of information. The problem is, Hollenbeck says, “the information we’re throwing out took us two thousand years to get to”. The most modern piece of equipment in the Blue Ox workshops was made in 1948, the year its founder was born. You have to admit, the man has a point.

But there’s more to Hollenbeck than homespun wisdom and master-craftsmanship. He opens his premises to kids who are failing at school, recalling that he had a hard job fitting in and dealing with theoretical learning at that age. “These are good kids,” he says of a largely court-ordered group of what the system would probably call juveniles; “they’re makers, not sitters.” The work they produce under his tutelage, beaming with pride at their achievement, bears out his faith in them. As the film ends, Blue Ox are approached by the Veterans’ Association to run craft workshops for returning servicemen.

I’ve spent this last month on the blog engaging with offbeat documentaries, from the shameless self-promotion of Troy Hurtubise in ‘Project Grizzly’ to the demented denizens of Vernon, Florida, by way of the Tiffany-fixated individuals in ‘I Think We’re Alone Now’. But ‘The Ox’ has proved the perfect documentary with which to end this mini-season. Eric Hollenbeck is both a regular guy and an unsung hero, a true man of the people.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Vernon, Florida


Errol Morris started working on a documentary about the residents of the titular city when he heard that insurance companies were getting dubious about the amount of claims being filed by people who had lost limbs in “accidents”, a spate that earned Vernon the nickname “Nub City”.

Errol Morris stopped working on the “Nub City” story when he received death threats from certain parties who were concerned that their claims would be compromised. Morris took these threats seriously, proving that – pardon the pun – the armless aren’t necessarily harmless.

This perhaps accounts for the feeling of circumspection that hangs over the film Morris finally came out of Vernon with. Like ‘Gates of Heaven’, it’s un-narrated. Nor does he even name his interview subjects. Which makes things awkward for the reviewer. I guess I’ve got two options for this article:

(a) discuss the participants in turn, studding these few hundred words with such appellations as the Asshole Turkey-Hunter, the Ass-hat Preacher and the Ass-clown Christian Who Prayed To God For His Pick-up Truck, not to mention the Old Fart Who Claims To Be Ambidextrous, the Old Fart Who Keeps A Turtle And A Possum, the Old Fart Who Bangs On About God and the Even Older Fart Who Bangs On About God;

(b) try to present a brief overview of the film’s themes and concerns, and hopefully cling on to my sanity in the process.

What ‘Vernon, Florida’ shares with ‘Gates of Heaven’ (particularly where, in the former, the sons of Harbert are centre stage) is interview subjects who are deeply and misguidedly in love with the sound of their own voices. This is particularly true of the Asshole Turkey-Hunter, whose interminable stories about – guess what? – turkey hunts are delivered in a heavily-accented drawl that frequently drifts into incoherence. In a documentary that doesn’t quite stretch to an hour’s running time, this fella makes it feel like ‘Berlin Alexanderplatz’ – and the more he talks the more he seems like a cartoon come to life. You wonder if his mother demanded paternity tests of Elmer Fudd.

There’s also talk of God. Sometimes it’s of God as a supreme being who “wants to have his way with your heart” (I sniggered to hear it said and I sniggered typing it just now), but mostly of God as a provider of pick-up trucks or cheap land deals. God as the kind of guy who’s precisely and finely attuned, across the vast expanse of the firmament, with the lives and simple desires of a bunch of glass-eyed hicks from this li’l ole place called Vernon, Florida.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Polite notice

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Thank you.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe


In the late 70s, Werner Herzog got so pissed off with kindred spirit Errol Morris not completing a film project that he made a bet: if Morris finished ‘Gates of Heaven’ and got it shown on the big screen, Herzog would … well, the clue’s in the title.

Thus it was that Herzog ate his shoe in front of a live audience at a screening of Morris’s film while Les Blank turned up to make a documentary about it. Herzog and Blank were already renowned documentarians at this point (Blank would later make ‘Burden of Dreams’, about Herzog’s arduous ‘Fitzcarraldo’ shoot) while Morris had just taken his first step along the road that would lead to ‘The Thin Blue Line’, ‘The Fog of War’ and ‘Standard Operating Procedure’.

The nexus of eccentric talent distilled into the twenty minutes of ‘Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe’ would be astounding even if the film was in any way conventional. Which it isn’t. ‘Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe’ is bonkers on many levels, beginning with its title.

The film opens with Herzog disembarking from a plane and offering a laconic wave to Blank’s camera, as if cheerfully acknowledging the absurdity of the undertaking. This to a soundtrack of ‘Old Whisky Shoes’ by the Walt Solek Band. In a car from the airport, Herzog muses in typically deadpan fashion on the interrelatedness of filmmaking and gastronomy. As usual with Herzog, you get the sense that pearls of wisdom are being formed in an oyster of satire.

The nature of the bet is only briefly touched on, with Herzog claiming encouragement of a protégé (it has been suggested that it was more in the way of a sarcastic aside, made in despair of the likelihood of Morris ever completing a project). Various other bits of business fill up the twenty minutes. There’s the culinary preparation, to start with: Herzog stews his shoes for five hours, having packed them with garlic, rosemary, red onions, duck fat and salsa. (Disclaimer: The Agitation of the Mind does not condone the consumption of footwear and accepts no responsibility for readers who attempt this recipe.)

There’s Herzog discoursing on Morris’s fully-formed maturity as a filmmaker on the basis of just one feature; and Herzog discussing earlier crazy escapades, such as jumping into a field of cacti on the set of ‘Even Dwarfs Started Small’. Clips from this film, as well as ‘Gates of Heaven’ and Charlie Chaplin in ‘The Gold Rush’ intersperse the interviews. The boots Chaplin eats in that film were actually crafted from liquorice. Herzog, however, munches on the real thing, cutting up one boot – he promises to eat the other if Morris’s film gets picked up by a major studio – with scissors and slowly chewing his way through the small pieces, washing them down with beer. The previous paragraph’s disclaimer still applies, by the way.

In all honesty, the shoe-eating is something of an anti-climax. Blank doesn’t linger on it, except to record Herzog’s caveat that he will not be eating the sole since one does not eat the bones of a chicken. Coming from a notorious hater of chickens, this comment tells its own story.

What really lingers in the mind from ‘Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe’ is his impassioned declamation (another word would be “rant”) on the inadequacy of images, particularly in advertising and commercial cinema. He calls for a holy war on bland and meaningless images. Yes, you read that right. A holy war. But then again this is the man who, in the Faber & Faber title ‘Herzog on Herzog’ warns that our grandchildren will blame us for not throwing hand grenades into TV studios because of adverts.

Herzog doesn’t want to see the Marlboro Man toking on a cigarette. Herzog wants to see something new; that redefines sensory perception. So when, at the end, he calls for “More shoes! More boots! More garlic!” it’s not because he’s developed a taste for Clarks’ finest – it’s a battle cry to the directors and film students and dreamers of the world to get behind him and take a different view and create images that will form a new filmic vocabularly. The shoe-eating was just to get their attention.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Gates of Heaven


The road to Errol Morris’s first feature would probably make a book in itself, never mind a couple of introductory paragraphs to a review; let’s just say that after studying immersing himself, but not continuing a career path, in musicianship and scholarship, Morris found his calling as a documentarian. An unfinished project on Ed Gein brought him into contact with Werner Herzog – of the Morris/Herzog connection, there will be more to say in tomorrow’s review – after which Morris considered turning the material he’d amassed into a manuscript. This potential career as a writer also stalled and instead he started work on a second documentary feature, about the so-called “Nub City” (i.e. Vernon, Florida), thus named because residents were committing acts of self-amputation in pursuit of insurance money. Morris received death threats and the “Nub City” documentary went the way of the Ed Gein documentary, although a very different film about Vernon would become Morris’s second film.

During the turmoil surrounding the “Nub City” project, Morris read of the exhumation of 450 corpses from a pet cemetery that had gone bankrupt. Intrigued, he set off to find out more. The result was ‘Gates of Heaven’. The film – devoid of narration and mostly shot in a “talking heads” style – recounts the efforts of nobly-minded Floyd McClure (Mac to his friends) to establish a pet cemetery and sensitively cater to bereaved pet owners. Mac recruits a few associates and they attempt to establish a viable business in a town where most dead animals end up at a rendering plant. Where they fail (Mac and his partners are estimated to have lost about $30,000 each – this in 1978!), local businessman John Harberts succeeds, and the second half of ‘Gates of Heaven’ shifts the focus to Harberts and his two sons, who run the Bubbling Well Pet Memorial Park on an admixture of hard-headed business acumen and barf-inducing sentimentality.

McClure, sincere and diffident, was never going to make a go of it. His rueful account of the affair is juxtaposed with the pragmatic worldview of the manager of the rendering plant, and the contrast speaks for itself. When Harberts and his horribly self-obsessed clan come into the picture, your heart breaks for McClure: his down-home good-heartedness is just so much chaff cast aside by the threshing machine of their money-fixated mindset.

Harbert Snr is a patriarch of the dollar-bottom-line school, but for all that he presents as a man who knows how to run a business and run it successfully. His sons, however, are quite something else.

The elder son blathers on about his time in the insurance business (it’s implied that he burned out and came back home to consider other options) and how he’s now learning the pet cemetery business and how he hopes to develop the business and if there’s even the most spurious opportunity to ram the word “business” into a sentence then goldarn it he’d make that his business. He’s given over to saying things like, “What does this mean for me? What does this opportunity mean for me? Well, it means a lot.” And the more he talks, embellishing his sentences with corporate buzzwords (yeah, they had corporate buzzwords back in the 70s: plus ça fucking change), the more his speech is drained of coherence and meaning until words just burble out of his mouth like so much white noise as he grins caprophagously from behind his trinket-lined desk.

The younger son, who perhaps engages a little more with the day-to-day operation of the Bubbling Well Pet Memorial Park, gives a less self-congratulatory account of himself but emerges as socially awkward and desperately lonely. He lives near the cemetery, in a house on the hillside (“the house on the hill, we call it,” he says without a shred of irony, winning himself 1978’s Statement of the Obvious Award). He rhapsodizes about his stereo system: “it’s a Pioneer SX1010,” he breathes huskily, in much the same tone Petrarch must have adopted when speaking of Laura. He makes tapes of his choppy and derivative electric guitar compositions. A key image has a single loudspeaker overlooking an empty valley while Harbert Jnr, offscreen, plays bad rock guitar to no-one.

By this point, ‘Gates of Heaven’ reveals itself as a film about the hollowness of the American dream and the individual’s isolation from society, a sort of ‘Great Gatsby’ with deceased pets.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

I Think We're Alone Now


Remember that somewhat creepy scene in ‘Ted’ where Giovanni Ribisi gyrates in tight pants to Tiffany’s ‘I Think We’re Alone Now’? Imagine that scene extrapolated to an hour. If you feel slightly ill and want to discontinue reading at this point, then go with my blessings, brethren, for there are no hard feelings.

‘I Think We’re Alone’ now tells the parallel stories of Jeff Turner and Kelly McCormick, both of whom are obsessed with Tiffany. The nature of their obsession is different, however, the most obvious touchstone being that Jeff has followed her everywhere and made ludicrous declarations of affection (and earned himself a restraining order in the process), while the Tiffany concert that Kelly attends towards the end of the film marks the first time she’s set eyes on the singer outside of videos and magazine article photographs.

Jeff has Aspergers, a capacious memory for ephemera, and comes across – superficially, at least – as gregarious and slightly self-effacing. Kelly identifies as intersex and is taking a long and what seems like a lonely journey towards gender reorientation. Jeff can talk the hind leg off a donkey – hell, the whole sanctuary! – while Kelly often struggles to express herself. Jeff has constructed an elaborate fantasy life where he and Tiff are already best buds, while Kelly is painfully, heartbreaking aware that she’s not apart of Tiffany’s life.

A lot of reviews that I’ve read of ‘I Think We’re Alone Now’ talk about Jeff as being likeable and sympathetic. Frankly, I found him a pompous windbag and something of a hypocrite, piously courting his pastor’s favour at church then happily swanning off to an erotica convention which Tiffany is attending by dint of her Playboy appearance. Jeff’s late-in-the-game transfer of his affections from Tiffany to Alyssa Milano, almost drooling as he holds up a DVD of ‘Poison Ivy 2’, only serves to point him up as a dirty old man. Aspergers accounts for some of his behaviours, but not all of them, and his wholehearted reliance on incapacity benefits when even his best friend admits he’s perfectly capable of working leaves him with vast quantities of free time on his hands. For a man like Jeff, free time is not necessarily a good thing.

Kelly, depressive and introverted, is also receiving benefits. However, she is a dedicated runner, genuinely seeks friends (albeit struggling socially) and by the end of the film is looking forward to the prospect of gainful employment. A couple of scenes document Kelly as being very close to emotional breakdown, whereas Jeff grins and gabs away throughout the film and doesn’t seem to be bothered by anything. Even reality. Jeff, in short, is the kind of person you can imagine losing his grip on orthodox social behaviours altogether and doing something dangerous (indeed, he was once arrested after trying to woo Tiffany with white chrysanthemums and a samurai sword). With Kelly, whose Tiffany obsession stems from a vision she had while comatose following a cycling accident, you worry for her fragility.

Director Sean Donnelly happily juxtaposes scenes from their lives for 40 minutes before bringing them together to attend a concert. That they don’t really take to each other is painfully evident, but there are none of the fireworks Donnelly was presumably expecting. Nor does Donnelly try to pin down why a two-hit wonder from the late 80s, with only a desperately attention-seeking girlie magazine appearance and a couple of roles in shit movies under the Asylum label as a claim to contemporary relevance, still inspires this degree of fandom. And it’s not just Jeff and Kelly who can’t get enough of her. In an intriguing but unfollowed-up scene, Donnelly films other fans eulogising to camera, including a guy who’s built like a brick shithouse and wouldn’t look out of place at a Pantera gig – the dude almost morphs into a puppy dog as he talks about his idol!

‘I Think We’re Alone Now’ could have been a fascinating look at the Tiffany cult. As it is, she’s an absence rather than a presence; a via negativa, almost. A narrative McGuffin to enable two terribly sad people (Kelly in the sympathetic sense of the word, Jeff not so much) to open up their shadow-lives like a vein in front of the camera.

I use the word “enable” deliberately, because I can’t help feeling that the villain of the piece, the enabler for both of these vulnerable adults, is Donnelly. I’d be very interested in knowing what consent processes were followed in eliciting Jeff and Kelly’s participation, and whether any medical or psychological provision was established during filming or kept in place afterwards. I really, really hope it was.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Project Grizzly


Okay: imagine this. You’re hiking through a box canyon somewhere in the Canadian Rockies when a grizzly bear knocks you to the ground. Instead of treating you as a light snack, it then turns round and walks away. Do you:

(a) offer a small prayer to whatever deity you believe in that you’re still alive;

(b) stick to urban areas from now on;

(c) spend seven years and $150,00 developing a suit constructed primarily from titanium and chain mail so that you can go and find the bear and study it up close and let it wallop you as much as it likes?

If you answered (a) or (b), congratulations: you’re a sane and reasonable person. If you answered (c), you’re Troy Hurtubise and you make Timothy Treadwell, the subject of Werner Herzog’s ‘Grizzly Man’, look decidedly well-adjusted.

‘Project Grizzly’ is a film of two halves. The first half presents an overview of the suit’s development through various design changes. Early iterations make Hurtubise look like Robocop, a comparison director Peter Lynch points up by having said sci-fi opus play on a drive-in movie screen behind a suited-up Hurtubise, while the final model has a kind of astronaut/deep-sea diver combo thing going on. The second half has Hurtubise and his team take to the mountains to discover that the suit is basically fucking useless.

The first half is the most entertaining, with tree trunks being swung at Hurtubise to test the suit’s durability. Arrows are fired at it. An Olympic shooting competitor swings by to blast it with a shotgun. Hurtubise, wisely, stays out of the suit for this bit. Oh, no, wait, now he’s got the suit back on and he’s offering a quartet of bikers to go at him with baseball bats in the parking lot of their favourite bar. They get stuck in enthusiastically, reducing the bats to splinters. Most of us would sign the suit off as fit for purpose at this point, but Hurtubise has a pick-up truck do a couple of hit-and-run numbers on it just to be sure. Oh, and then walks through fire with it on.

And throughout it all, Hurtubise talks and talks. And talks some more. The inability of Troy Hurtubise to shut up long enough to take a breath swiftly becomes the documentary’s defining aesthetic, more so than bears or bodysuits. Here, again, it delineates neatly as a film of two halves. The first half has Hurtubise pitching himself as some kind of conservationist or researcher. “I’d like to be able to go anywhere in the world,” he drawls, “just take my suit and my team and go and do my research anywhere.” In case you’re wondering what the nature of said research would be, “behavioural activities of bears” is the closest he comes to providing specifics. There’s no discussion of what (if any) university or research body he’s affiliated with or funded by, and the matter of whose £150,000 funded the suit remains unmentioned.

Still, Hurtubise as researcher makes for better company than Hurtubise as mountain man, the persona he doesn’t so much slip into as smother all over himself in the second half. Here, he hooks up with a bunch of guys with guns and cowboy hats and they go into the mountains and the macho asshole levels go off the scale. If it’s not Hurtubise eulogising about Bowie knives as he alternately shaves with them or flings them at trees, it’s one of his team reminiscing about volunteering for ’Nam in order to enjoy the “travel and adventure” opportunities and, when the theatre of conflict got too boring, “playing the game called Outrun the Grenade.”

Imagine being stuck up a mountain with this doofus. In fact with half a dozen of these doofuses. And all of them packing rifles, shotguns and knives. Me, I’d rather take my chances with the bears!

The sense that all this bullshit is purely for the camera solidifies as the suit proves inoperable on rugged terrain. The mask slips: Hurtubise reveals himself as a man desperately trying to provide distraction in order to save face. The suit is quietly abandoned; Hurtubise and his buddies play at being trackers; when a bear finally shows up, Hurtubise opines that the snows are about to close in and it’s time to leave. Maybe next year.

‘Project Grizzly’ was made in 1996. Since then Hurtubise has drifted towards a more militaristic specialism, attempting to market to the US Army everything from flame-resistant face masks to landmine-resistant underseal for vehicles, by way of something called Angel Light which apparently sees through walls. Hmmm, perhaps the definitive cinematic account of Hurtubise as total lunatic has still to be made.